Wilmington saves ‘iconic’ 30-foot Gemini Giant statue

Ryan Jandura was locked into a high-stakes, high-value online auction.

The item up for grabs — which eventually sold for $275,000 — wasn’t jewelry or a painting. It was a 30-foot statue of an astronaut wearing a helmet and carrying a rocket, a fixture of Route 66 tourism that — until recently — stood in Wilmington since the 1960s. For Jandura and others, theGemini Giant has personal and historic significance, and they didn’t want a private collector taking it out of the far southwest suburb. 

During the March 20 auction, Jandura huddled with Gregory Peerbolte, CEO of the Joliet Area Historical Museum, in Peerbolte’s office. Jandura, a Wilmington resident and supervisor at a 911 dispatch center, had helped raise nearly $60,000 through a now-disabled GoFundMe and other fundraisers to “save the statue,” preparing to chip in if the price tag climbed above the museum’s budget from a state grant. 

Jandura had a hunch that he should bring his own laptop and internet connection, which he said eventually came in handy. The museum was outbid at a quarter of a million dollars, and they had 20 seconds to submit a higher bid, Jandura said. As the seconds ticked away, Peerbolte’s computer malfunctioned.   

“There was like four seconds left on the clock and I was like ‘Do you want me to bid? Do you want me to bid?’ and I had my finger on the button ready to push it,” Jandura said. “I could hear him saying ‘It’s not letting me,’ so I hit it.” 

The message soon popped up on Jandura’s screen that he won the auction. He said his heart rate finally slowed and felt like he could take a normal breath. 

“It was pretty crazy,” he said. “It was a perfect way to end what had been a crazy few weeks.” 

Rise of the ‘Muffler Men’

Businesses along Route 66 needed a way to stand out among the competition, and many bought large, fiberglass statues for advertising. The statues, including lumberjacks and cowboys, eventually became roadside attractions in their own right. They later earned the nickname “Muffler Men” from the founders of the travel website, who had seen some statues holding car mufflers. 

The Gemini Giant, the towering fiberglass muffler man holding a rocket, stands guard at the former Launching Pad Drive-In in Wilmington. (Vickie Jurkowski/Daily Southtown)
The Gemini Giant, a towering fiberglass muffler man holding a rocket, at the former Launching Pad drive-in in Wilmington. (Vickie Jurkowski/Daily Southtown)

A former owner of the Wilmington restaurant The Dairy Delight, later renamed The Launching Pad, bought the Gemini Giant in 1965, where it remained, said Joel Baker, founder of American Giants, a company dedicated to finding the statues and sharing their stories. It’s become one of the most famous and photographed Muffler Men, he said, and is the last remaining spaceman statue.

In general, he said there’s been ebbs and flows with the statues’ popularity. Largely due to the “negative sentiment” toward the statues that popped up during Lady Bird Johnson’s Beautification Project, they fell out of favor by the 1980s, Baker said. But a decade later, their resurgence began, a trend that’s continued.

“Towns want the giants back, and they want neon back,” he said. “They want all that nostalgia from the ’60s back that people were working so hard to get rid of — now we all love it.”

At their peak in the 1960s and early ’70s, there were as many as 500 across the country, Baker said. Only about 200 are left today, including 10 or so in Illinois, making them a hot commodity for private collectors, he said.

So when Holly Barker, owner of the Giant and the now-closed restaurant, posted Feb. 24 on X, formerly known as Twitter, that she was auctioning off the Gemini Giant and its trademark rights, the community sprang into action. She said she wanted at least $100,000 for the statue.

“I want this junk trinket off my property,” said Barker, who still owns the restaurant. “If this is sabotaged in any way and the Gemini Giant doesn’t sell, then it will be destroyed.” 

‘Best of small town America’

The day after Barker’s announcement, Jandura started the GoFundMe. Jandura remembers taking trips to Wilmington to fish or visit antique shops with his grandparents as a kid and seeing the “giant, enormous figure that towered over the road.” It felt “larger than life,” he said. When the 44-year-old moved to Wilmington as an adult, he frequently passed the Gemini Giant on drives with his wife and helped make jewelry to sell at the restaurant’s gift store. 

“He became part of my life,” he said. 

Donations from hundreds of people rolled in. One person said the Gemini Giant “brings so much charm to our little place in the universe,” and another said they’re planning to travel Route 66 in April for the 50th wedding anniversary trip and hope to see the astronaut. A local Veterans of Foreign Wars post also helped with fundraising. 

At the Joliet Area Historical Museum, Peerbolte said he’d been interested in helping preserve the statue and restaurant since summer 2022. Travel along Route 66 is a major tourism generator, he said, pumping dollars into the local economy. He worried about a “disastrous ripple effect” if the statue left the region. 

Despite being decommissioned as a federal highway in 1985, the vintage highway that stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles is evolving as an international tourist destination. Before the highway’s 100th anniversary in 2026, states, including Illinois, are pumping millions into communities to help upgrade and market Route 66 attractions.

“The Gemini Giant just encapsulates and personifies all the romance, all the imagination, all the quote-unquote ‘get your kicks for Route 66,’” he said. 

Before the auction, Jandura, Peerbolte, representatives from the VFW and Ben Dietz, mayor of Wilmington, met to figure out how to keep the statue in Wilmington. The museum was able to make the winning bid through a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. They then donated it to the city of Wilmington in a collaboration Peerbolte called the “best of small town America.” 

“Two years from now we’ll be celebrating 100 years of Route 66, and this is a great way to shine a light on how big a deal it is, not just locally or regionally, but even internationally,” Dietz said. “It’s one of the top destinations for international tourists, and every year we see tens of thousands that go through our town. We can’t wait to have the giant back on display for everyone to enjoy.”

Baker said the museum had stiff competition in winning the statue, calling it a once in a lifetime chance for private collectors in the U.S. and internationally to own “the most iconic Muffler Man.” Still, he said the $275,000 price tag was “crazy.” Typically, fully restored statues sell for $30,000 to $40,000, with damaged ones going for much less, he said. 

“Imagine being able to buy something that’s just a symbol of Route 66 and anyone can buy it if you have deep enough pockets,” he said. “That’s why it went so high.”

Statue to go in South Island Park

The Gemini Giant is now in temporary storage, awaiting some restoration work, including a new paint job. Dietz said the city plans to put the statue in South Island Park, on display alongside its Route 66 monument. He said they hope to have it in place by late spring. Jandura added that he’s refunding the money community members donated since it wasn’t needed to purchase the statue, and has started a new fundraising campaign for the restoration process. 

The city of Wilmington was able to purchase the Gemini Giant, a 30 ft tall fiberglass statue that stood outside the Launching Pad Drive-In in Wilmington since 1965, in a recent auction. The statue is now in storage before some refurbishing, March 29, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
The city of Wilmington bought the Gemini Giant, a 30-foot fiberglass statue that stood outside the Launching Pad drive-in in Wilmington since 1965, at a recent auction. The statue is now in storage, awaiting some refurbishing, March 29, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

“We have a lot of natural space and green space in our town, and since it sits right on Route 66, it’s a natural correlation to put the giant there,” Dietz said. 

Some say they’re already missing the statue and are ready for its return. Blaine Lamb-Rosenfeldt, who said she frequently passes the statue on her way to Springfield from her home i near Monee, said she’s thrilled it’s staying in Wilmington.

“For years you’re used to it as you’re coming around the corner and seeing it, but as long as it’s still in town where everybody can go and hopefully stays on that route, so good,” she said. 

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